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US Moves to Impose Harsher Penalties to Curb Indecent TV Shows

US lawmakers are turning up the heat against those found to be responsible for indecent broadcasting on American public airwaves. Higher fines for indecency are intended to curb what some consider a growing trend of sexually offensive material in the American entertainment media. Some lawmakers are also suggesting that decency standards be applied to private cable and satellite broadcasts.

The now-infamous uncovering of Janet Jackson's breast during a halftime show at the 2004 American Football Superbowl championship game sparked a quarter of a million complaints in an organized camapign by conservative American citizens.

The government agency in charge of regulating the broadcast industry decided it was time for a crackdown on obscenity.

The US House of Representatives approved a huge increase in fines. Future acts deemed indecent could cost a broadcaster or artist a $500,000 fine, 10 times more than the current fine, if the legislation passes the Senate and is signed by President Bush.

Janet LaRue, legal counsel for Concerned Women for America, a Christian public policy group, says the move is long overdue.

"In order to deter violations of our federal broadcast decency standards, broadcast fines have to be high. When you incur fines of only $32,000 against [American broadcaster] CBS television, for example, it is just pocket change. Broadcasters have been pushing the envelope, and the lax enforcement hasn't acted as a deterrent. So the nature of programming has become more and more explicit," says Janet LaRue.

Marvin Johnson is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that defends civil liberties. He believes the demand for more regulation of television broadcasts comes from a small yet vocal minority of Americans.

"I don't think it is the majority of Americans because if you look at the demographics of the people who watch these TV shows, some of them are very popular. A lot of people are watching, even though you have some that find them indecent," says Marvin Johnson.

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is the government agency that assigns radio frequencies and licenses to broadcasters that in return, pledge to serve the public interest. That includes meeting FCC decency guidelines, particularly in the hours of 6 AM to 10 PM, a time when children are often watching television. The FCC defines 'broadcast indecency' as anything that portrays sexual conduct in an offensive way.

But John Watson, professor of law at the American University in Washington, says there is no clear-cut definition of indecency and the FCC has been inconsistent in its enforcement. He says that and the higher fines will have a chilling effect on broadcasters. He thinks they will err on the side of caution and self-censor programming.

"They don't want to cross the line that they really cannot see very clearly. So they will stay far, far away from the line. As a result, they will not take any risks, they will produce programming that is acceptable for a ten year old," says John Watson.

An example could be the November 2004 broadcast of the war movie Saving Private Ryan on the ABC television network. It contains historic scenes of battle, which include vulgar language that the FCC deemed indecent in other broadcasts. The subject matter was not sexual, but the language prompted more than 60 affiliate television stations not to show the movie. Later the FCC ruled that given the historical context of the movie, such profanity was acceptable.

Mrs. LaRue of Concerned Women for America agrees with that FCC decision. But she believes the FCC needs to expand its regulation of cable and satellite. People pay for those services - about 85% of the US households with televisions have them.

"It is time that the indecency regulations apply to cable as well as satellite simply because it is just as pervasive and available to children and is far more sexually explicit in many cases," says Mrs. LaRue.

But regulating something people pay for is not that simple. In 2000, the FCC tried to enforce restrictions on sexually oriented cable channels like Playboy television. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this would violate free speech rights based on the distinction that broadcasting over public airwaves is free, while citizens choose to pay for cable and satellite.

Legislation could reverse that decision. And recently, several senators introduced a bill that, if it becomes law, would expand government regulation to cable and satellite broadcasts. Current FCC commissioner Kevin Martin, expected to become the next FCC Chairman, says such a move could be a viable alternative.